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U.S. optimistic Canada will spend enough on defence to meet threats: envoy

Click to play video: 'U.S. Ambassador says he was ‘not surprised’ by Canada’s U.N. ceasefire vote'
U.S. Ambassador says he was ‘not surprised’ by Canada’s U.N. ceasefire vote
WATCH: Ottawa and Washington are no longer on the same page publicly on the Israel-Hamas war following Canada’s vote in favour of a United Nations resolution demanding an ‘immediate humanitarian ceasefire.’ ‘The West Block’ host Mercedes Stephenson sits down with U.S. Ambassador David Cohen to discuss the U.N. vote, calls for Canada to label the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a terrorist group, and possible Canadian defence spending cuts – Dec 17, 2023

The United States is confident Canada will soon be spending enough on its military and defence that it will be able to respond to threats as they arise, regardless of whether it ever meets its NATO commitments, the U.S. ambassador to Canada says.

In an interview with Mercedes Stephenson that aired Sunday on The West Block, David Cohen said he has heard assurances in Ottawa that the long-delayed defence policy update will include increases in spending that will address concerns being voiced by top military leaders about shortfalls in equipment, personnel and overall readiness.

He added that spending must allow Canada to boost its capabilities and fulfil its obligations to continental defence in the Arctic — a responsibility it shares with the U.S. —  and European commitments, even if the defence budget doesn’t match two per cent of GDP as NATO has urged its members.

“That’s the way I prefer to focus on the steps Canada is taking: not by the percentage of Canada’s GDP that it’s spending on defence, but by an identification of specific threats and requests for assistance and whether Canada will take steps to respond to those threats,” he said.

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“That is what Canada has demonstrated a willingness and an ability to do over the last year or so, and it’s what gives me confidence that the assurances we’ve received — that Canada is aware of its responsibilities and its need to enhance its defence capabilities — (is) why we should be patient and wait for the defence policy update.”

Canada currently spends about 1.3 per cent of its annual GDP on defence.

Click to play video: 'Defence minister says plan for ‘significant’ military investments in talks'
Defence minister says plan for ‘significant’ military investments in talks

A report recently released by the Department of National Defence raised questions about just how much the country can do without additional spending.

The report – an annual self-assessment on how well the department met its own goals – said Canada’s ongoing support for Ukraine, as well as an increase in the “frequency and intensity” of natural disasters that the military is called on to assist with domestically, has strained resources and decreased its existing inventories.

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Gen. Wayne Eyre, Canada’s chief of defence staff, told Global News last month that “given the current trajectory” the Canadian Armed Forces are going to be facing challenges just maintaining the equipment, ships and vehicles it currently has.

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At the same time, ministries across the federal government have been asked to cut back on their spending in order to find savings in government coffers amid a tightening economy.

The defence department has identified nearly $1 billion in potential savings that government officials insist won’t include cuts to the military itself, instead targeting expenditures like ministerial travel. But Eyre has warned that those cuts may still impact the Forces’ ability to operate.

Defence Minister Bill Blair recently told the Halifax International Security Forum that he has been pushing the Prime Minister’s Office and the Department of Finance for more military spending in order for Canada to meet its “aspirations.”

Click to play video: 'Canada’s push to axe $1B from military budget for savings will impact security: defence chief'
Canada’s push to axe $1B from military budget for savings will impact security: defence chief

Cohen said he’s been heartened by the “important, significant steps taken by Canada,” including the procurement plans for new F-35 fighter jets and Boeing Poseidon P-8A military surveillance aircraft, that show Ottawa is receiving the message from leaders at home and abroad.

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More needs to be done, however.

“There’s no secret to the fact that the United States — and I — believe that Canada needs to invest more in its defence preparedness,” he said. “Not because the United States wants them to do it. It is for the benefit of Canadians.”

'Not surprised' Canada called for Gaza ceasefire

Cohen said the need to respond to threats as they emerge extends to the homefront as well, particularly after Hamas’ brutal attack on Israel on Oct. 7.

A concerning rise in antisemitic rhetoric and attacks in Canada has been compounded by the presence of neo-Nazi groups like Atomwaffen Division, which was founded in the U.S. and is listed as a terrorist organization by the Canadian government.

Earlier this month, two Ontario men were arrested and charged with creating terrorist propaganda and recruiting videos for Atomwaffen. The alleged offences date back to 2018.

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“You have to understand that antisemitism and hatred constantly bubbles just beneath the surface,” said Cohen, who is Jewish. “This is not new.

“How you bring this under control is one of the more complicated questions. I don’t have an easy answer to it, but there has to be a continued universal condemnation by everyone of that type of reaction to what’s happening in the Middle East.”

Click to play video: 'Neo-Nazi terrorism group worries law enforcement agencies as 2 Ontario men arrested'
Neo-Nazi terrorism group worries law enforcement agencies as 2 Ontario men arrested

Cohen said countering extremism with “a universal and consistent and strong counter-balance” also applies to reports of officials linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in Canada, despite federal sanctions against their presence and activities here.

At least two senior IRGC officials found living in Canada have been referred for deportation, Global News has learned. Yet Global News has also uncovered a network of Iranian officials in Canada who have been targeting members of the Iranian diaspora who are critical of the regime.

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Iran has backed Hamas and other terrorist and rebel groups across the Middle East.

Cohen said it is “beyond my pay grade” to determine if the IRGC should be listed as a terrorist organization in Canada. The IRGC Quds Force, which trains, arms and finances Hamas and other terror groups, was added to Canada’s list of terrorist entities in 2012.

The ambassador noted he was “not surprised” by Canada’s vote last week in favour of a United Nations resolution calling for an “immediate humanitarian ceasefire” in Gaza and the federal government’s support for such a move.

The U.S. continues to oppose a ceasefire, saying it would benefit Hamas, and voted against the UN resolution. Yet U.S. President Joe Biden has also warned Israel it is at risk of losing global support due to what he described as “indiscriminate bombing,” and officials have urged Israel to take greater care to protect civilians.

“I was not surprised by (Canada’s vote),” Cohen said. “I sort of saw the tea leaves.

“But there is one thing I think everybody agrees with, which is this war has to end.”

—With files from Alex Boutilier

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